by Rafiq Raji
In its simplest form, blockchain is a decentralised database architecture. As opposed to having databases in centralised servers, blockchain allows for data to be stored across a global network of computers. Consequently, no single entity, computer, or administrator has control over the databases. Essentially, blockchain is a distributed ledger in which information is stored across a network of computers instead of a central server. It is in essence, a distributed ledger technology (DLT).
The potential applications of blockchain for more efficient supply chains and trade processes are writ large. And while the blockchain trend is global, its potential use and benefit are likely to be more expansive and impactful on the African continent, than perhaps anywhere in the world.
Cryptocurrencies, which rely on blockchain technology, have also been facilitating international African trade, especially with Asia. They have allowed traders to overcome constraints of hard currency shortages and Covid-19 travel restrictions by facilitating payments for international trade transactions. Paying for international trade transactions with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin has proved to be faster and cheaper than through the conventional foreign exchange markets. African traders have also found cryptocurrencies to be more liberating as there are no bank limits.
Clearly, blockchain and cryptocurrencies have potential for facilitating African international trade. But there are challenges. Some central banks have banned commercial banks from facilitating cryptocurrency transactions. It may also be daunting to wean countries of currently cumbersome paper-based trade processes.
With a bias for African use-cases, we explore the evolution of blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies thus far. Thereafter, we assess their potential for enhancing African international trade. In this regard, we focus on three key aspects: (1) supply-chain tracing (2) trade facilitation, and (3) cross-border payments.
2. The blockchain ecosystem
A ledger is simply a book of records. The innovation blockchain technology brings is in the way these records are kept and validated. In a blockchain, a decentralised peer-to-peer (P2P) network of computers processes, verifies and validates all data entries into the digital ledger. These digital ledgers are distributed across a network of computers. Through a consensus mechanism, a ledger entry (or transaction) is broadcast to all the members of the computer network (or nodes) for validation. If validated, the transaction is added to similarly validated transactions in a block. As soon as the block is full, it is added to an existing chain of blocks or blockchain. Once on the blockchain, the blocks and their constituent transactions cannot be edited or altered. This ‘immutability’ is made possible by cryptography.
The technologies that underpin blockchain are database or ledger technologies, P2P networks and cryptography (See Figure 1). The P2P networks serve as storage and validation utilities. To make it worth their while, they are ‘rewarded’ for these functions. In a bitcoin blockchain, for instance, nodes are rewarded with bitcoin for successful validation of transactions. The incentive mechanism takes other forms in other blockchains.
For all its vaunted potential, blockchain technology has a number of drawbacks. Because the sizes of blocks are fixed, scaling to accommodate larger numbers of transactions more quickly is limited. Since every node is privy to every transaction, there is little or no privacy. And since different blockchains do not necessarily recognise one another, interoperability is an issue. Immutability also means that erroneous transactions cannot be corrected or reversed once on the blockchain.
3. The use of blockchain in Africa
The potential blockchain applications can be broadly grouped into three categories: (1) digital payments, (2) contracts, and (3) database and record management. Based on the PositiveBlockchain.io database, Smart Africa (2020)
identifies 69 active blockchain projects across different sectors on the African continent. Financial services and agriculture have the most use cases (Fig.2). Regional giants Kenya, South Africa, and Nigeria are the top users of blockchain technology.
According to Smart Africa 2020 the most pertinent blockchain use-cases in Africa would be (1) digital payments, (2) public procurement, (3) decentralised electricity distribution, (4) digital identification and education credentials, (5) digital land administration, (6) agricultural and mining supply chain tracing, and (7) trade facilitation (Smart Africa, 2020).
Public procurement and governance
The real-time, transparent, and immutable features of blockchain technology make it ideally suited for the African environment where weak governance, unquestioned authority, and lack of transparency makes public procurement vulnerable to graft and corruption. Blockchain-based project management tools that allow real-time tracking of workflows and expenditure would also ease a major constraint for many of Africa’s international donors and development partners.
Decentralised electricity distribution
More than half of Africa’s population do not have access to electricity. In many cases, this is due to difficulties in connecting remote rural areas to central electricity grids. Blockchain technology makes viable the scaling
up of micro-grid power solutions. It can also make P2P power trading cost-effective and feasible. A blockchain architecture can make it easier and cheaper to monitor and execute the smallest transactions as many times as needed, thus making a decentralised
P2P electricity marketplace feasible. Both electricity producers and consumers can interact with each other bi-directionally without the need for a central coordinator.
Digital identification and education credentials
In an increasingly globalised knowledge-based working environment where remote-working is increasingly common, the need for cost-effective and reliable verification mechanisms to check education credentials has become urgent. A blockchain-based credentials verification system could be a solution. It would reduce the risk of fraud and make the verification process a lot less cumbersome. Since a permanent and accessible digital version of credentials resides on the blockchain, applicants no longer need to worry about losing their certificates. African governments are taking notice. For instance, the Ethiopian ministry of education has entered a deal with Atala PRISM, a blockchain identity solution by Input Output, the firm behind the Cardano blockchain, to develop a countrywide student and teacher identification system.,
Digital land administration
Similarly, a blockchain-based land registry system solves the frequent fraud problem around land transactions in many African countries. It is still very hard to verify the authenticity of land titles in most African jurisdictions. Even when land titles and related documents seem genuine, you could not be sure they are authentic.
Blockchain technology is ideally suited to fix the problem. Land titles registered on a blockchain can be verified by all. And in the event of a sale, all the members of the blockchain network would be privy to the transaction.
A potential buyer can also verify the authenticity of land documents and whether the land or property in question is actually in the market via a blockchain-backed user-interface on a website or mobile phone app. Little wonder that Ghana is working with IBM on a blockchain-based solution for land administration.
4. Supply chain tracing & trade facilitation with blockchain
The immutability and real-time features of blockchain make it ideally suited for tracing the origin and journey of goods through a supply chain. It is certainly better than current certification and labelling systems, which can be manipulated (Gannes, 2018). Blockchain-based systems engender transparency and make counterfeiting hard to do. Unsurprisingly, firms in the global food industry, which have been beleaguered by numerous scandals owing to supply chain mishaps, are increasingly turning to blockchain technology. “At each point of the journey, data on the product, supplier, location, as well as on the environmental and social impact of each business, are collected and added to the blockchain, creating a digital history of the product that is accessible to all, from the farm to the consumers (Gannes, 2018).”
Ethiopia is partnering with blockchain firm IOHK to track its coffee supply chain using the Cardano blockchain. Similarly, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has deployed blockchain for the management of its food aid supply chain between the Djibouti port and its main operations hub in Ethiopia. With the blockchain-based system, it is able to track in real-time when it receives food shipments in Djibouti all the way to its base in Ethiopia and onward as it distributes the food aid. The Rwandan government is also working with UK startup Circulor to use blockchain to track its supply chain of the precious metal tantalum to provide comfort to buyers that they are sourced ethically.
Most of the processes of international trade are paper-based. And even as blockchain technology is palpably suited towards trustworthy paperless solutions, adoption has been slow. With Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns hampering physical contact, blockchain-based solutions have become attractive. Unsurprisingly, there are now numerous ongoing global blockchain-based trade digitalisation initiatives., 
Information for cargo due at seaports generally lags by at least 24 hours, weighing on lead times for clearing goods. But in African ports, clearance of goods takes weeks. Quicker clearance at customs would be possible if there was a way to reduce the time lag. The real-time feature of blockchain achieves this and more. There are time and cost efficiencies from having each step of the shipping process recorded and accessible on the blockchain in real-time.
Potential trade gains of more than US$1trn could be realised over the next decade owing to removal of current constraints in trade processes, according to the World Economic Forum (Ganne, 2018). For blockchain-facilitated trade to be effective, whether in Africa or elsewhere, a conducive regulatory environment is crucial. African countries, which stand to benefit more from blockchain efficiencies, would need to accommodate legally binding electronic formats for signatures and documentation, on the one hand, but specifically with respect to blockchain transactions on the other (Ganne, 2018).
A demonstration of the paper-based international shipping process from a typical African country is germane at this point. We use an actual Kenyan example. Shipping a refrigerated container of roses and avocados from Kenya to the Netherlands
requires more than 100 people, 200 interactions, and takes about 34 days from the farmgate to shop shelves (Ganne, 2018). As shown in Table 1, the myriad shipping documentation required can be overwhelming. The process costs money and time.
A Boston Consulting Group (BCG) research paper finds that there are more than 20 players involved in a single trade finance transaction, with 10 to 20 documents emanating from the process (Gannes, 2018). Frustratingly, only 1% of the more than “5,000 data field interactions” is value-creating, with about 85 to 90 percent of the interactions tantamount to paper-pushing (Gannes, 2018). The automation imperative is writ large.
Unsurprisingly, firms and governments are increasingly open to the potential efficiencies of blockchain-based digitalisation (Gannes, 2018). A blockchain system would engender more secure trade finance transactions and ease Know-Your- Customer (KYC) and Anti-Money Laundering (AML) processes. Currently, most international trade transactions require prepayments, but a more trustworthy blockchain system would also allow for more trade transactions to occur on open account terms, where payment is made after shipping and delivery of goods (Gannes, 2018).
African examples showing how blockchain has been used to demonstrate this potential are apt at this point. UK bank Barclays and fintech startup Wave conducted a self-acclaimed first live blockchain-based trade finance deal in September 2016 (Gannes, 2018). The letter of credit (LC) for the export of US$100,000 worth of cheese and butter to The Seychelles from Ireland by agri-food cooperative Ornua took less than 4 hours, from 7 to 10 days via the paper-heavy process hitherto (Gannes, 2018).
In 2019, the Eastern and Southern African Trade and Development Bank (TDB) and Singapore’s dltledgers facilitated the importation of US$22m worth of white cane sugar to Ethiopia from India, with all trade finance activities conducted exclusively via blockchain.  More recently, to overcome cross-border trade and supply chains disruptions due to Covid-19, TDB used blockchain technology to facilitate a US$150m intra-African trade finance transaction between Morocco’s OCP and Ethiopia.
5. Cross-border payments with cryptocurrencies
With the entrenchment of mobile money in key African markets, the transition to blockchain-based digital payments should ideally be relatively easy. And while blockchain infrastructure like central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) for digital payments are still aspirational, Africans already use ‘stablecoins’, a type of cryptocurrency whose value is tied to an asset, such as the U.S. dollar or gold. By pegging their market value to highly traded fiat currencies or precious metals stablecoins reduce the risk of price volatility. Traders find this relative stability reassuring. They can use stablecoins for transactions without having to change their cryptocurrencies into fiat currencies, thereby reducing costs associated with the banking system. Examples of stablecoins are Facebook’s Diem (previously known as Libra), Tether, USD Coin, and Dai (Hertig, 2020).
In the African case where hard currency is scarce in many countries, stablecoins allow traders to buy and sell goods and services with international trading partners without needing the central-bank regulated banking systems of their respective countries. Stablecoins are particularly popular in East Asia because of the Chinese government’s decision in 2017 to ban exchanges of yuan for cryptocurrency.”
With cryptocurrencies gathering momentum, central banks are increasingly open to the idea of digital currencies. A central bank digital currency (CBDC) is simply a digital version of a fiat currency. Thus, most of the features of a potential CBDC are already available within existing digital payments infrastructure. However, CBDCs would have additional advantages.
Since central banks would be able to issue CBDCs directly to citizens without having to go through commercial banks, the potential to increase financial inclusion is huge. With banks expectedly at a disadvantage owing to disintermediation consequently, there is not much impetus to issue CBDCs at scale yet, especially in developing and emerging economies. In the specific African case, however, South Africa is already in the second phase of its CBDC project. The South African Reserve Bank is benefiting a great deal from the Monetary Authority of Singapore’s (MAS) experience using blockchain-based real time gross settlement (RTGS) system. Similarly, Tunisia’s central bank is exploring a potential CBDC issuance (Smart Africa, 2020). Ghana has also indicated it plans to issue a CBDC soon. Incidentally, Nigeria has also announced that plans are afoot to issue a digital currency.
Many African economies are characterised by high inflation, volatile and weak currencies, capital controls, hard currency shortages, and weak banking infrastructure. Cryptocurrencies allow discerning citizens to ameliorate or escape some of these economic challenges. Bitcoin is the pioneer and most popular cryptocurrency. There are other notable ones such as Ethereum, Litecoin, Cardano, Polkadot, Bitcoin Cash, Stellar, Chainlink, Binance Coin, Tether, and Monero.
“Africa will define the future (especially the bitcoin one!)”, tweeted Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey in November 2019. His optimism is not farfetched. “While much of the focus elsewhere has been on investment, speculation and trading, Africa, more than any other continent, has a need for the utility of cryptocurrencies.”
Diaspora remittances are expensive through traditional banking channels. Sometimes, recipients have a hard time receiving payments in hard currency. When converted to local currency instead, commercial bank rates tend to be below market rates, with high fees in tandem. There is also a time lag of at least two days from the time of the initial transaction.
Cryptocurrencies overcome these constraints. Fees are relatively low (Arcane Research, 2020). FX conversion rates tend to be market competitive. There is almost zero lead time, as recipients get their money almost instantaneously or same day. And in most
African countries, crypto transactions remain unregulated and thus tax-free.
Nigeria is said to be the top bitcoin trading nation in Africa, with about US$99m in trade volume in the first quarter of 2021. Kenya and Ghana come second and third with US$34.8m and US$27.4m respectively. South Africa trails fourth with US$25.8m. Yet the crypto infrastructure in Africa has not grown in tandem. African nodes are few and mining operations are not significant. Less than 0.5% of all global Bitcoin and Ethereum nodes are in Africa, for instance, with the majority domiciled in South Africa (Arcane Research, 2020). There are several cryptocurrency merchants, ATMs, and exchanges around the continent but they are not as widespread as elsewhere (Arcane Research, 2020). \
The crypto ecosystem relies on the internet and electricity. At 26 percent, African mobile internet adoption remains very low. Electricity grids are still weak and supply epileptic and inadequate. Additionally, unlike mobile money, which only requires a basic mobile phone, cryptocurrency wallets require smartphones. Africa accounts for more than half of the global population without a mobile broadband connection, according to the GSM Association (GSMA). And while there are more than a hundred ongoing African Union ICT infrastructure projects aimed at upgrading broadband and other related internet infrastructure across the continent, much more remains to be done.
African governments are increasingly wary of cryptocurrencies and the ecosystems that sustain them. In Nigeria, for instance, the central bank has barred commercial banks from facilitating crypto transactions. Other African countries with crypto bans are Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Egypt (Arcane Research, 2020). In some other African countries like Kenya, Ghana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, advisories have been issued about the risks of crypto transactions (Arcane Research, 2020). Namibia and Burundi allow the use of crypto but trading is banned (Arcane Research, 2020). But there is growing acceptance of cryptocurrencies for online payments by mainstream firms like PayPal, Visa and Mastercard.,, American banks also plan to start allowing their customers to buy, hold and sell bitcoin directly from their accounts instead of going through cryptocurrency exchanges.
With cryptocurrencies, cross-border payments are easier, cheaper, and less cumbersome due to lax or no regulation. “Cryptocurrencies allow users to transact across borders, without KYC or AML checks and in some cases with far superior privacy (Arcane
Research, 2020).” According to Chainalysis, a startup that helps governments and private sector companies detect the use of cryptocurrencies in illicit activities, Kenya, South Africa, and Nigeria are among the top ten global adopters of cryptocurrencies
(See Table 2). Indeed, South Africa, where daily crypto asset trading volumes exceeded US$145m for the first time in January 2021, is the only one that recognises cryptocurrencies as taxable assets. The rapid
rise in crypto trade (and illicit activity) has compelled its government to introduce regulations. Remittances account for a greater share of African cryptocurrency transactions, mostly retail-type transfers of less US$10,000 (Chainalysis, 2020).
Africans in the diaspora remitted US$48bn to the continent in 2019 (Chainalysis, 2020).
More interestingly, a significant portion of African cross-border cryptocurrency transactions are business-related, according to Chainalysis. Africa’s international trade with Asia accounts for 31 percent of its exports. In the face of Covid-19 difficulties, African MSMEs were able to continue their international trade businesses with their Asian counterparts unhindered using cryptocurrencies. In one use-case example illustrated by Chainalysis, a Nigerian video game importer could not wire hard currency directly to China for his purchases from that country, routing it via Hong Kong instead. With crypto exchanges, he simply sells a cryptocurrency like bitcoin in exchange for Chinese yuan (CNY) and sends it directly to his Chinese counterparty.
However, harder cryptocurrency restrictions by the People’s Bank of China in June 2021, may now create some bottlenecks. Chinese commercial banks had long before been barred from facilitating cryptocurrency transactions. Chinese fintech firms were able to fill the void, however. But now, the Chinese central bank has directed that they too should stop facilitating crypto transactions. The motivation for the crackdown is likely primarily to prepare the grounds for the imminent issuance a digital yuan at scale. Still, while African traders would not be able to transact directly with their Chinese counterparts in cryptocurrencies, they would still be able to do so indirectly via accommodative jurisdictions like Singapore, from where the Chinese leg of the transactions could then be conducted with fiat currencies.
Chinese expatriates working in Africa increasingly account for a significant portion of crypto transactions. They use it for remittance or sending proceeds from business activity, some of which, according to Chainalysis, may not be legal. In economies like Zimbabwe and Nigeria, where the local currency is often in state of volatility amid high inflation and unstable political environments, cryptocurrencies serve as stores of value. Understandably, many here see utility in using it.
Crypto-based remittance services are springing up across the continent. These include Kenya’s BitPesa, Ghana’s BTCGhana, and Uganda’s Remit.ug (Ganne, 2018). Thanks to these online platforms, traders in Africa can now make cross-border financial transactions cheaply and conveniently. With cryptocurrency exchanges there is no need to go through banks or money transfer firms to buy hard currency for international transactions.
Using blockchain, the settlement risk associated with cross-border payments is removed. This year (2021) Singapore’s largest bank DBS Group, its sovereign wealth fund Temasek and JP Morgan plan to launch Partior, a blockchain-based global payment system that “will employ distributed ledgers to reach final, instantaneous settlements between two banks anywhere in the world.”
The primary attraction of blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies in Africa is its use as a medium of exchange, store of value and relative ease of cross-border transfer. Even as regulators are becoming increasingly wary of these technologies, especially cryptocurrencies, their resilience suggests they are likely to endure.
6. Conclusion and Recommendations
Firms doing business in Africa grapple with cumbersome and fraud-infested trading environments. Sometimes, authorities and traders lack the data or capacity to confirm the actual sources of traded goods, how they were produced, and the conditions in which they were produced. All that adds to cost and makes Africa uncompetitive. Supply-chain tracing via blockchain would go a long way in resolving such issues. It is therefore clear that blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies are precisely the kinds of innovations Africa needs to overcome some of its trade constraints.
Greater transparency also means greater scrutiny. With more information at the disposal of authorities because of blockchain technology, current tax avoidance strategies of trading firms may be constrained. It may also prompt local firms in the value chain to demand a fairer share of the value created. That means that some incumbent firms may lose the advantage that comes with information asymmetry. Even so, the expected gains from reduced costs, shorter lead times, and transaction efficiency should more than offset any such potential losses.
Firms doing business in Africa also have to overcome hard currency shortages and capital controls. Cryptocurrencies can help overcome these longstanding challenges. And even as central banks in Africa are growing increasingly wary of cryptocurrencies, with many discouraging or even banning commercial banks from facilitating transactions, their utility as an alternative means of cross-border payments is evident.
There is a greater onus on Africa’s international trading partners to motivate blockchain adoption. The technological know-how, experience and capacity are still predominantly tilted towards firms in developed economies. Asian firms, which increasingly do more business with African businesses, setting up subsidiaries or trading with local firms, stand to benefit a great deal from more transparent and efficient trade processes on the continent.
There should also be greater interest by Asian blockchain firms in facilitating the upgrade of African trade processes for blockchain. Africa increasingly does more trade with Asia than any other continent. Singapore, which is considered Asia’s cryptocurrency and blockchain hub, is particularly well-suited to lead the charge.
The following recommendations apply to firms engaged in international trade on the continent, blockchain technology firms that can deploy new systems, international development organisations that manage government-stakeholder interfaces, and African governments themselves, whose economies stand to benefit a great deal from the potential efficiencies of a blockchain-based international trade system.
Optimise African supply chains with blockchain
Asian firms doing business on the continent, most of which are in the agricultural and mining sectors, would be able to improve their operations with blockchain technology. Chinese firms are major players in the rare metals mining industry in Africa. While most are engaged in legitimate mining endeavours there are many smaller-scale mining ventures which are not. Illegal gold mining by Chinese nationals is a major headache for the Ghanaian government, for instance. If the Chinese government can prod its ICT firms to support African governments with supply-chain tracing and formalisation of the mining activities of its nationals in tandem, it could be a win-win solution for both parties.
There are also a lot of Asian firms involved in the food and agricultural sectors. Growing concerns about provenance, amid food security concerns make the case for the use of blockchain in support of supply chain transparency compelling.
Facilitate Africa-Asia trade digitalisation initiatives
There are numerous ongoing global blockchain-based trade digitalisation initiatives. Very few are focused on Africa, however. This is not surprising. Africa still accounts for less than 5 percent of global trade. Africa - Asia trade is significant, however. There is a strong case for Asian firms doing business on the African continent to motivate their ICT counterparts towards trade digitalisation initiatives that would boost the booming trade relationship between the two continents. The fact is not lost on Asian stakeholder firms. For instance, the first trade on the blockchain trading platform by Singapore bank DBS and Swiss commodities trader Trafigura was for shipping iron ore worth US$20m from Africa to China.
Engage African central banks on digital currencies and payments
Like their global counterparts, African central banks are mulling the issuance of central bank digital currencies (CBDCs). Already, many are upgrading their digital payment infrastructure. While a lot of African central banks remain averse to cryptocurrencies, they are not averse to blockchain technology, since it is similarly what underpins CBDCs. Respected jurisdictions like Singapore, which have managed to integrate cryptocurrencies, digital currencies, blockchain and other related infrastructure to develop a cohesive digital payment and trade ecosystem, are precisely the types of partners Africa needs to move forward on trade digitalisation.
Seize digital infrastructure opportunities
Cheaper and faster internet services are germane to leveraging on new technologies like blockchain and cryptocurrencies. Internet connectivity is still low in many African countries. The information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure opportunities are writ large. In this regard, global ICT firms can engage with the more than 100 African Union ICT infrastructure projects aimed at upgrading broadband and other related internet infrastructure across the continent.
Besides, local foundations already exist in several African countries for foreign firms to build on with respect to the emergent new economy technologies like blockchain and cryptocurrencies. Johannesburg, Cape Town, Nairobi, and Lagos already rank amongst the top 100 global cities for fintech ecosystems (AUC & OECD, 2021).
There is also clearly an opportunity for cheaper smartphones, without which blockchain scale opportunities on the retail demand side would be elusive. Asian firms already export cheaper but effective smartphones to many African countries. As a significant portion of the continent’s telecommunication infrastructure is being built and upgraded by Asian firms, they are also well-positioned to steer adoption of blockchain systems and other new technologies.
Bridge knowledge and capacity gaps
Recent blockchain-backed trade finance transactions with African counterparties pointed to the huge potential of broader digitalisation and automation of the international trade process on both sides. Costs were lower, and lead times were significantly shorter. But current use-cases have yet to scale. For that to happen, there must be buy-in by governments.
Global technology firms have already started to facilitate blockchain adoption in Africa. Those from Singapore may have a distinct advantage. A US$8.9m programme has recently been launched to strengthen Singapore's blockchain ecosystem and facilitate the commercialisation and adoption of blockchain technology for “real-world” applications. It involves over 75 firms including some large multinational corporations to conceptualise 17 blockchain-related projects within the next three years in sectors such as trade and logistics. Singapore-based dltledgers has already undertaken several blockchain-based trade finance initiatives on the continent and plans to scale the digital capabilities of its existing African clientele. Similarly, the Blockchain Association of Africa is working with Singapore’s Blockchain Worx to set up innovation centres in South Africa, Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania. Institutions such as the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore do highly quality applied research in this area, making the South-East Asian city state a leader in blockchain technology. Clearly there is opportunity for Asian technology firms to use their expertise in adopting this technology for Africa – be that for trade, provision of welfare or competitiveness.
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